If you've never had a hot cup of Kona coffee, then you are missing out. Hawaii is home to some of the most deliciously prepared coffee beans globally.
Not only do they taste great in a pour-over machine, but they are also rich when cold brewed.
Join us as we take a deep dive into this high-end coffee locale to discover why Hawaii produces some of the world's best coffees.
History of Hawaiian coffee
The first coffee brought to Hawaii was from Don Francisco de Paula Marin in 1817, but none of his coffee plants grew. Despite the first failed attempt, Chief Boki, Oahu's governor, decided to try again and bring some coffee plants from Brazil in 1825. Coffee production in the Hawaiian islands began in the Manoa Valley on Oahu. From there, the search to find other suitable regions to grow coffee began. At first, coffee production came from different areas of Oahu. Soon after, in 1828, producers introduced coffee to the Big Island. Eight years later, coffee made its way to other islands.
Coffee production took a back seat for much of the early 1900s due to the growth of the sugarcane industry. However, out of all of the regions that initially grew coffee, the Kona region is the only area that has continually grown coffee since its first introduction there.
In the 1980s, once sugarcane became less profitable to grow, many farmers converted their sugarcane fields to grow coffee instead. Today, Hawaii produces coffee on five Hawaiian islands and 11 regions. Oahu and the Big Island are the primary producers of the crop. Still, you'll also find it on Kauai, Maui, and Molokai islands.
More farms grow coffee than any other crop in Hawaii. As a result, Hawaii coffee is ranked 5th in production value in the islands' agriculture industry and is one of their main exports. Despite only producing 0.04 percent of the world's coffee, it is a significant crop for the islands.
The Kona region is now the most famous Hawaiian coffee region and varieties. It also has by far the most number of farms producing coffee. However, because all Kona coffee is hand-picked at peak ripeness, certain regions on other islands with large industrial-scale plantations produce more coffee.
Hawaiian islands coffee by region
Hawaiian coffee heralds as one of the world's best when it comes to quality and flavor. However, while Kona coffee may be the most well-known for taste and quality, many other varieties of coffee grow all over the islands.
The Kona region alone has over 650 farms growing coffee. There are over 100 other farms on the Big Island and several dozen farms on the other islands. A couple of the islands even have large coffee plantations.
Here is a brief overview of Hawaiian coffee's history and production on each of the five islands that grow coffee.
The Big Island's Coffee
When it comes to the Big Island and coffee, Kona coffee is often the first thing to mind. Kona coffee is the most famous and popular of all Hawaiian coffees. However, many other regions on this island also produce excellent coffee.
Kona coffee has been grown on the slopes of the Mauna Loa and Hualalai volcano since the late 1800s. There are about 2000 acres in the Kona region devoted to growing coffee.
A unique aspect of Kona coffee is that many Kona coffee farms are small, unlike the large coffee plantations on other Hawaiian islands. They are often family-owned and operated. The coffee cherry is hand-picked when fully ripe for a premium quality coffee. While it may be expensive, it is worth the price.
There are 790 coffee farms on the island, with about 650 them in the Kona region.
The elevation where the coffee grows and its hand-picked harvesting method sets Kona coffee apart from other Hawaii coffee products. The Kona region's elevation is between 500 to 3000 feet above sea level. This elevation is lower than in many areas of the world that produce coffee, which gives this coffee a milder taste.
Given the high price of Kona coffee, it appears most often blended with other varieties. Sometimes, a blend is only 20 percent Kona coffee. They are then filled with less expensive beans to replicate the taste and flavor of pure Kona coffee.
If you thought drinking a cup of coffee was as far as it went in Kona, you haven't heard of their coffee festivals. The Kau coffee region hosts an annual coffee festival in the spring. Then, in the fall, you can catch the Kona Coffee Culture festival.
In addition to the famous Kona region, just southeast of the Kona region, the Kau and Puna regions also produce coffee. Hamakua and Hilo regions, northeast of Kona, also feature many small farms. Most small farms in these regions still use the traditional Kona coffee method of hand-picking the coffee cherries.
The Puna region, which sits at a high elevation, has more than three dozen small farms. Puna coffee is best as a medium roast and slightly nutty flavor.
The Kau region, which is near the base of the Moana Lau volcano, produces some impressive coffee products. One of its coffees came in 6th place in an annual international coffee tasting contest, a sign of its quality. This coffee is slightly sweet and has subtle floral tones.
In Hamakua, there are about 150 acres of land producing coffee. This coffee product has chocolate notes and a smooth, rich body.
Hilo is best known for its coffee mill. You can tour this mill and see where the coffee is processed and roasted. The Hilo Coffee Mill company also has a store where you can buy its roast coffee if you have time for a fresh cup of coffee. Then, head over to their tasting bar for a full menu of specialty coffee drinks, tea, and an assortment of food.
While Kona coffee may be the Big Island's featured coffee, as you can see, there are many other excellent coffee brands to try there too.
Oahu has the most extended history of growing coffee in Hawaii. Nowadays, compared to the other islands, it produces only a small coffee. It has a 200-acre plantation managed by Dole Food Company, converted from an old sugarcane farm. The high elevation of these coffee beans makes them similar in taste to the beloved Hawaiian Kona coffee.
The company has a coffee processing mill in the town of Waialua. Coffee from its plantation comes there to be processed. It is left raw, though a local Hawaiian company called Island X Hawaii roasts the coffee beans for you to purchase a fresh coffee cup. It also offers other local products like a variety of chocolates.
There are a couple of varieties of Wailalua coffee. The featured Peaberry coffee comes with the highest price and the rarest Wailalua coffee. You'll find it on the north shore of Oahu.
Even though this is the 4th largest of Hawaii's islands, it is 2nd in coffee products. It has over 4000 acres of coffee plantations.
The Kauai Coffee Company grows various coffees in former sugarcane farms on its 3100-acre plantation, located on its southwestern shore. This coffee plantation is the largest in Hawaii. It is also one of the most extensive irrigated coffee plantations globally.
The coffee grown by the Kauai Coffee Company undergoes wet processing methods after being harvested—five grades of the coffee leave the processing plant.
This plantation is at lower elevations and mainly grows Central and South American varieties of coffee. Eighty-five percent of its coffee produced is Yellow Catuai, an Arabica variety of coffee. The island also features many smaller coffee farms.
Maui has converted most of its old sugarcane fields to coffee farming. MauiGrown Coffee is the largest coffee plantation in the area. Its farm has over 500 acres of land on the Kaanapali estate in the western part of Maui.
One of the coffee plant varieties produced here is Moka. It has a medium body with a touch of hazelnut flavor. This Hawaiian company sells its coffee beans roasted or green. The Maui Coffee Company, where these coffee beans go to roast, sits only a few miles away.
There are a few other small coffee plantations throughout the region. Ono Organic Farms is another Hawaiian company with coffee products grown in the eastern portion of Maui.
However, there are plans to develop hundreds of more acres of central Maui to grow coffee. So we may see much more from this region in the future.
Even though Molokai is only a mile away from Oahu, it is the 5th most popular among tourists out of all the Hawaiian islands. Near the village of Kualapuu, there is a 500-acre coffee plantation and a coffee mill.
Farmers converted the land into coffee production from an old pineapple plantation. To assist in growing coffee in Molokai's region, farmers have implemented a vast water reservoir to irrigate the farm.
Similar to Kauai's harvesting, the coffee plantation in Molokai also uses a harvesting machine. However, this method is very different from Kona coffee, where workers hand-pick the coffee beans for harvest.
The type of coffee produced on this island is Red Catuai. This variety of Arabica grows well in the volcanic red soil of the island.
The two brands of coffee produced in Molokai are Molokai Muleskinner and Maulani Estate. Molokai Muleskinner uses dry processes and is a medium-dark roast. The Maulani brand is wet-processed and has notes of chocolate and rich body, and mild acidity. You can also find a blend of Molokai coffee with beans from other Hawaiian islands.
What does Hawaiian Coffee Taste like?
Typically, coffee grown at high elevations will have a more robust flavor than coffee grown at lower elevations. However, being a group of islands near sea level, Hawaii has a much lower elevation than coffee plantations in other world regions.
The low elevation of these coffee beans gives Hawaiian coffee a mild taste and acidity.
The tasting notes you may find for Kona coffee are brown sugar, chocolate, honey, and a slight fruity hint. Kona coffee is bright, crisp, and smooth. It has a rich body but is not overpowering.
The Hawaii Coffee Company has a custom roast for its Kona coffee, which is lighter than a medium roast. This roast brings out the smooth and delicate nature of the coffee while keeping it clean and bright.
What is the best Hawaiian coffee?
To no surprise, Kona coffee is well known to be the best Hawaiian coffee. Its award-winning reputation brings in many tourists desperate to try a cup of this specialty coffee.
Other highly regarded Hawaiian coffees are the Peaberry coffees and coffees from the Kau region.
Peaberry coffee gets its name from the strange shape of coffee cherries. Due to its peculiar shaped beans, it is also one of the rarest types of coffee on the islands. It has a tart sweetness, fruity notes and isn't bitter. In addition, its low acidity and smooth body won't upset your stomach.
The Kau region is right next to the Kona region. It also grows its coffee in the fertile volcanic soils of the Mauna Law volcano, so it reaps the same benefits as Kona's coffee. Likewise, it has also won international awards for its unique taste and high production standards.
The islands have so many fantastic coffees as to which Hawaiian coffee is best. Determining which one is best is more a matter of personal preference.
What is so special about Kona coffee?
Kona coffee is by far the most popular Hawaii coffee product. Its unique flavor is what the Hawaiian islands are known for when it comes to coffee.
When shopping for Kona coffee, watch out for "Kona blends." For coffee to label itself a Kona blend, it only needs 10 percent Kona coffee beans.
A cup of pure Kona coffee is like no other kind of coffee. So it is no wonder that tourists adore it. However, these beans do come at a price. They are often sold for $30-$50 a pound, though it depends on the company. This price tag is partly due to the higher wages paid to workers in the US, where the minimum wage is much higher than in many Central or South American countries like Colombia.
Another unique aspect of Kona coffee is that the farms are all small independently owned. Most of them are under 5 acres in size and owned and operated by a single family.
Is Hawaii known for its coffee?
If you couldn't guess it already, Hawaii is known for its coffee. Even though it only produces 0.04 percent of the world's coffee, its reputation is a sign of its quality.
Its most famous coffee is Kona coffee, though you may have to search for it. The coffee cherries are hand-picked at perfect ripeness. It is not mass-produced like coffee farming from plantations in other regions.
Hawaiian coffee is known as some of the best in the world. But, while Kona coffee may be the islands' favorite, many other Hawaiian varieties are also highly sought after, not to mention award-winning.
The Hawaiian islands have very fertile soil because of the volcanos. This volcanic soil contains many minerals that provide necessary nutrients to the plants growing in it.
The search for a coffee farm in Hawaii is not difficult, given the dozens of regions suitable for growing coffee. In addition, five of Hawaii's eight islands have coffee plantations or small farms, so you're bound to stumble across some freshly brewed beans.
Next time you visit "the Aloha State," make sure to visit a small local coffee company or mill. There, you can try a cup of freshly roasted coffee. Many of these coffee companies have tours of their plantations or mills if you have the time. So regardless of which island you visit, you're sure to find a great local roast.